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February 19, 2013 | Tom Ballard

Weaver learns “I don’t know squat about retail”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a six-part series about Knoxville entrepreneur Sam Weaver.)

It was the eve of the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. Local entrepreneur Sam Weaver had left EaglePicher after it sold U.S. Nuclear to Advanced Refractory.

“What am I going to do,” he asked himself. Weaver decided to sell Mylar balloons shaped like the Sunsphere, the Fair’s iconic symbol.

“I learned that I don’t know squat about retail,” he said as he laughed about the experience. “I turned a $25,000 loss into a $150,000 loss.”

So, after a brief experience exploring the feasibility of reopening closed oil wells, Weaver returned to an area that he knew well – neutron absorbers, reacquiring some of the rights that he had sold earlier and resurrecting American Furnace Company, run by long time business partner and friend, Dan Hensley.

In another sister company, Carbon Technologies, Inc., Weaver decided to shift the raw material that was used to make the carbon fiber insulation material. Rayon, which was the initial raw material, cost $2.50 a pound while scrap cotton was 10 cents a pound. The decision to shift was successful, and Weaver and Hensley sold the technology to a company in Scotland.

“We’ve sold off a number of things that have been successful,” Weaver notes.

Always the entrepreneur, Weaver decided in the 1985-86 timeframe to combine several companies that he had started earlier in the decade under one umbrella – American Matrix – and engage with a venture capital firm for the first time.

“I thought I had some things to learn from them, and I did,” he said in citing the fact that sales more than doubled to about $7 million. The VC firm later decided to bring in its own Chief Executive Officer (CEO), who shifted the focus to silicon carbide whiskers, something he described as a “hot item” at the time.

“We had not finished developing the product,” he said.

Unfortunately for Weaver’s company, everything was not as stable as the technology itself. The initial CEO recruited by the VC firm left after 90 days, and another one was hired. A proposed $2 million deal with an Israeli company fell through two weeks before execution when the Israeli executives were scared-off by the pessimism of the VCs. When the Israelis were convinced to come back five months later, the revised proposal was never completed by the VC so the company was shut down and the technology sold.

Weaver proudly noted that the company that bought the silicon carbide whisker technology, and had earlier bought neutron absorber technology, built a 300-employee entity. He also said that he had to pay off a $750,000 loan which he did, one of the key traits of Weaver that surfaced repeatedly during our extended interview.

We also learned that, when one door closes, another opens for Weaver, and the door usually involves neutron absorbers.

“The day after we shut down (1990), Westinghouse called and asked for us to make neutron absorbers for them,” Weaver said. The result was the formation of Third Millennium Technologies to focus on ceramic, thermal energy and energy-related products and the restart of American Furnace Company, making large thermo-chemical processing equipment.

“We had two really active companies,” he said. Third Millennium was making neutron absorbers and single crystal silicon carbide, a technology that excites Weaver even though he says that “there is still not a market for it.”

American Furnace worked with several companies including Coors where the focus was thin cans punched out of silicon nitride.  American Furnace, run by business partner Dan Hensley, also developed a process and built a facility and equipment to make aircraft composite carbon brake pads in a single step process.  Those are still made today in the same location in Knoxville.

Third Millennium Technologies and American Furnace Company were merged into North American Advanced Materials, and Weaver exited at the end of 1994.

So, in 1995 Weaver restarted as Millennium Materials, making neutron absorbers, toll firing of carbon components, and began developing a metal matrix composite, Carolite, named after his wife – a fact that he proudly notes is “currently 47 years and counting.”

Millennium Materials began making memory disc substrates for computer hard drives, something Weaver says was “the most interesting thing that I have done.”            He explains in his typical matter of fact way that “We’re not afraid to tackle most engineering challenges.”

Weaver was faced with one of his biggest challenges on January 4, 2001 while he and his wife were in Colorado babysitting a grandson.

“We received a call that the plant had burned to the ground,” Weaver said. “It was a low point in my life.” At the time, he was negotiating to sell the company, but the deal fell through.

Plans were made to rebuild the plant, and the company was sold six weeks before the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center to the Dyson Group in the United Kingdom. The sales agreement included Weaver remaining with the company for five years.  He lasted four years, but a new challenge awaited him.

NEXT: Proton Power consumes Weaver’s energy and attention these days.